The Pit at Little Heath was the source of great excitement in December when a pair of adult shoveller ducks and two juveniles visited. The shovel like beak of these ducks is the best identification, but the male also has a bottle green head, white breast and chestnut colouring on its flanks. This group were the first of this species to be recorded at the Pit, and displayed wonderfully for several days. They were still present on 20th December. A grey heron and cormorant, both fish eating species, can be seen daily diving for fish, or resting up in various areas of vegetation around the waters edge. Coot and moorhen can also be seen at The Pit in their fine winter plumage, and are probably preparing nest sites for next spring.
A mature red admiral butterfly was seen at Croft Close on 1st December, a very late date for this species. This species is migratory, but might have been hibernating nearby and was tempted out by the warm weather we experienced about then. There has been a slow build up in the number of starlings coming to our feeding station, and a much larger group seem to roost in trees near the canal between Rowton and Christleton. We have had regular fights between three male blackbirds, all disputing territory, and several villagers have told me about a buzzard that is now coming regularly into their gardens. Buzzards didn’t exist in Cheshire 40years ago, but can now be seen everywhere. A young fox was seen wandering around the area of the Primary School at 11.30am on December 18th. This often happened in the late 70’s when foxes had a den in scrubland behind the Ring O Bells, and both adults and cubs would play on the new Primary School field.
The highlight of happenings at the Platts last month was the sighting of fresh otter spraints, a pool of jelly left by the female, and an otter slide into the Gowy. Water rail are present again this winter and can usually be heard by their strange pig like cry, rather than being seen. They are about the size of moorhens, but with prominent red bill. They are very secretive, as are common snipe. I’m delighted to report that twenty+ common snipe and a few rare jack snipe have been both roosting and displaying on the big meadow, taking advantage of the very wet conditions to hide between rushes and tall grasses. A curlew was also a welcome visitor in December and barn owls could be seen in the early morning and at dusk. A pair of tawny owls were also heard calling to each other at around 6.00am, with other reports of owls calling coming from the village, with little owls appearing near” The Park”. One of the best sights for me was on 18th Dec. when I counted at least 150 lapwings in the air over the new lake. Fifty years ago lapwings “ ruled the world” in terms of numbers seen in Cheshire with estimates of over 30,000 being present. Sadly the change of farming practices from dairy to arable in the country has caused a decline in the food source for such waders, and curlew, lapwing and golden plover numbers have all suffered huge declines. Three years ago however lapwing numbers along the Gowy corridor began to increase, and counts of 500+ lapwing have now been made. They can usually be spotted swirling or flapping in the air between Hockenhull Platts and Stamford Bridge. As I write just before Christmas there are still occasional visits by skeins of pink footed geese from Greenland, but in nothing like the numbers seen in November.
As far as I can tell the highlight of the big garden bird watch in the village this year has been the visit to several bird tables of some delightful bullfinches. These colourful birds just stand out from the crowd, especially the male with his almost crimson chest. I’ve also heard that several green finches have been seen, together with several sightings of siskin. Siskins are smaller than greenfinches and have more speckles & stripes on their yellowy/green bodies. Excellent numbers of goldfinch seem to have been present, together with long tailed tits and starlings. Starlings can often be heard singing from the top of television aerials, clearly signalling their territories to other birds, and I’ve heard robins singing really loudly all over the village and particularly in the churchyard in the last week or so. Mistle thrushes are probably the most common bird in the churchyard, and their throaty thrrrr, thrrrr, thrrr, calls make them easy to identify just from sound itself. The mistle thrushes can be seen and heard feeding in the yew trees or occasionally sitting on the church roof or on a cross. Two great spotted woodpeckers were also seen regularly in the churchyard in January.
The colourful male shoveller duck was still on the Pit at Little Heath at the end of January, and grey herons and cormorant can be seen daily. The presence of these birds, indicate that there are still plenty of fish to be found there. The Pit Group will be carrying out remedial work on the banks as soon as the plants in the new coir rolls have become established enough, and they can be transported from Surrey to Christleton. The two new fishing platforms made from recycled materials can then be put in place.
A male golden eye duck was a really exciting visitor to Hockenhull in late January, together with a number of wigeon and teal. Two great crested grebes were seen displaying, and at least 5 little grebes or dabchick present. Ten redshank, more unusual visitors were seen flying along the river Gowy towards the end of January, and the very wet conditions on the meadows were ideal habitat for the 20 or so common snipe that have been present. The river was very full several times during the month, but hasn’t stopped signs and sightings of a family of otter. A mother with three cubs were seen early one morning, and the female also showed well on another occasion almost sitting up on her haunches and looking up at the camera. At least two tawny owls have been heard calling, and a barn owl was seen hunting over the meadow on the Tarvin side of the river. The occasional male stone chat has been seen, but the wintering thrushes have moved on, with just the occasional fieldfare calling in the lanes.
Blue tits seem to have had a really good breeding season in 2016, as there are good numbers around, and regular sightings of minute goldcrests are being made. The goldcrest is smaller than a wren, and has a distinguishing gold flash or stripe on its forehead. Blackbirds are also staking out territories at present, but no sign of singing song thrushes yet. A flock of up to 500 lapwing, together with 2,000 gulls and an estimated 2,500 pink footed geese have been recorded flying over the area, and the pink feet in particular heard over Christleton village in the early morning and at night.
Bullfinch - Male
Siskin - Male
Goldfinch and Coal Tit
Long Tailed Tit
Hockenhull Golden Eye
Hockenhull Great Crested Grebe
The Church Mistle Thrush
The Church Robin
The Pit Cormorant
The Pit Heron
The Pit Shoveller
1st February, 2017. There are now 4 males and five female shoveller ducks on Christleton Pit. I couldn’t believe it when I saw them whilst passing today.
Storm Doris was the cause of some disruption to life in the parish, with storm force winds bringing a number of trees down across lanes, roads, buildings and the canal. Thankfully no one appears to have been hurt and the damage has largely been cleared as I write. Sometimes strange events happen because of extreme weather, and I’ve had a report that a bittern was seen at Christleton Pit during the storm. Sightings of bitterns in Christleton are very unlikely, but not impossible, with one sighting being made at Hockenhull in the 1970’s. I can’t confirm the recent sighting, but it is possible that a migrating bittern was blown off course and landed at the Pit for a break during its flight. No other sightings have been recorded in the area as far as I know. However the count of eight shoveller ducks at the Pit last month has been increased to twelve, with six males and six females being seen in mid February which is extraordinary.
Both green and greater spotted woodpeckers have been seen in local gardens, and a buzzard regularly visits gardens in Pepper Street and Birch Heath Lane. Several can be seen flying low over the village on any day, and I’ve recorded both male and female sparrow hawks this last week, with the smaller male flying alongside my car at eye level for two hundred yards on Rake Lane. A number of friends have recorded both male and female black caps, whilst long tailed tits have also been seen in good numbers. One rare visitor to our garden feeders was a reed bunting, whilst groups of tiny green siskin have also been recorded locally. Several people have reported seeing jays in the village and there are still a number of fieldfare (wintering thrushes) about.
A large poplar came down over the passageway during the storm and cut off access to the reserve for a while, but with the area flooded the mud has largely put people off venturing down the path anyway. Barn and tawny owls have been seen and heard recently, and little owls seen along Hockenhull Lane for the first time for a number of years. There is still a flock of 500+ lapwing to be seen over the lake, and although the river level has been high signs of otters can be found. The Cheshire Wildlife Trust team has been carrying out a great deal of necessary conservation work in the wet meadow, with willows pollarded or removed, and tall grasses scythed down. The reed bed on the northwest corner of the reserve has been thinned out, and the northern ditch cleared so that water is flowing through to the Gowy. We’ve had more standing water on the big meadow than I’ve ever known, and this too is draining into the northern ditch. The wetness of the area has created an excellent habitat for wading birds and attracted a good number of common snipe, with up to twenty being recorded during the last month, together with at least one jack snipe. Several grey wagtails have also been seen in the area. Two ravens were calling in mid February creating a raucous noise in competition with at least five greater spotted woodpeckers drilling holes in the poplar trees. A lone nuthatch was also seen, and up to five goldcrests, and three treecreepers were frequent sightings.
A short visit to the RSPB Burton Mere’s Wetlands on Wirral yesterday was very fruitful with hundreds of waders, ducks, geese and swans present. Recent arrivals on the nearest island to the main hide were fourteen beautiful black & white avocets, no doubt preparing to have another successful breeding season on the reserve. Incidentally there were noticeably more shoveller ducks present than usual. The water levels across the reserve indicated how wet these last weeks have been, and newly dug drainage ditches were already full of water. Numbers of wintering swans have been down this year, no doubt partly to do with the erection of a huge field of solar panels creating a vast solar farm, but in litigation other fields nearby have been planted with crops to cater for the wintering wildlife for the next 25years. I saw 20+ Bewick and whooper swans yesterday, but I understand there have been counts of up to 150 during the winter months, so all is not lost.
Black Cap Female
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Hockenhull Storm Damage
More Storm Damage
Long Tailed Tit
Wild Swans on the Dee
The first butterflies were seen in the village during sunny days in mid March, and at the beginning of April, with superb specimens of bright yellow male and green female brimstones, with several small tortoishell, peacock, comma and red admiral being seen. A single red kite was spotted flying west over the Old Glasshouse on Whitchurch Road, and there have been spectacular views of up to five buzzards soaring in the sky above the village. Several people have told me that they have now had buzzards in their garden, which is a relatively new happening, and a major development. Buzzards were almost non existent in the area thirty years ago.
The countryside has been a wonderful mass of colour in early spring and thousands of bright yellow celandines have glowed in the warm sun along Quarry Lane, and the first Lady smock and marsh marigolds appeared at Hockenhull.
Chiff chaff have taken up residence in hedgerows along the canal and in the lanes at Hockenhull, with as many as ten males singing for territories. Black caps were heard at the beginning of April, and the first martins flew through on the 2nd. Skylarks have been heard in good numbers this year, which is wonderful news, as their aerobatic singing has been sadly missed for several years. Several pairs of lapwing have also taken up residence, and they too have been showing off their aerobatic skills with dramatic display songs and alarm calls.
There have been signs of otters and water vole being active on the river Gowy, whilst two kingfishers have been seen regularly near the middle bridge. Mandarin ducks have been spotted twice looking for tree holes in the poplar plantation, as well as seen on the canal and at the Groves in Chester. The maximum number of shoveler seen at the Pit in Christleton was twelve, an amazing sight, as they had never been recorded there before. They now seem to have moved on to the lake at Hockenhull, with ten counted on 2nd April together with a shelduck and twenty tufted duck. There have been three great crested grebes, and two dabchick (little grebes). It is also hoped that the pair of mute swans will breed this year, as they are now mature enough to do so.
Tawny owls have been heard calling even in daylight hours, and barn owls have been seen hunting at dawn, although there is no sign this year of the short eared owl which spent the spring here lat year.
Conservation work on the Pit starts on the 4th April, with preparations being made for the installation of coir rolls to stabilise the banks on the Littleton Lane and Bricky lane sides. When these are put in place, two new fishing platforms made from recycled materials will be erected. This will then complete the work of stabilising the banks to prevent erosion started almost ten years ago. The work is being funded by grants from WREN, Cheshire West & Chester Council through Councillors Stuart & Margaret Parker , Christleton Parish Council and the Pit Group.
Brimstone - Female
Brimstone - male
Buzzards - Croft Close
The first butterflies emerged earlier than usual and in good numbers. Male and female brimstones were followed by small tortoishell, comma, holly blue, common blue, peacock and speckled wood. On days when the sun was warm, butterflies were very active, and by the end of the month good numbers of orange tip butterflies were on the wing at Hockenhull with several peacock and holly blues.
The 8th April was a red letter day in some respects as a group of 150-200 swallows, sand and house martins were observed flying across the reserve and the new lake at Hockenhull. Then there was a complete absence for three weeks before the next group arrived. The initial group were very clearly migrants just stopping off for a feed on route, but its the second group that have returned to their old hunting grounds and nest sites in the parish. The Village Walking Group met at Walk Mill on Tuesday 25th when at least ten house martins arrived that morning to stake their claim on previous next sites under the eves of the mill.
Several people have told me about parties of delightful yellow and green siskins visiting their bird tables, and other friends have been watching broods of great and blue tits through cameras in nest boxes. Several have been very successful, and numbers of these members of the titmouse family are as good as ever after such a comparatively mild winter.
Kingfishers have also benefited from the milder winter weather and we saw three kingfishers on the wing on the river Gowy, together with two common sandpipers, a rare visitor these days a couple of weeks ago. Even more unusual was the sighting of four oystercatchers, a pair of goosanders, several shelduck, and two mandarin ducks which were seen prospecting for nest sites in trees on Hockenhull Lane and in the poplar plantation on the reserve.
Grey herons are also very visible these days flying over the village and no doubt spending time feeding on the Pit. I hope you enjoy seeing the images of a mature grey heron that I took earlier in the month on the weir by the Groves in Chester.
Sadly no swans have arrived back this spring following the demise of our old cob last Autumn, and I’ve also heard from a friend that one of last years cygnets CJC1 was killed flying into a power line near Brassey Green.
At the Pit, mallards have been very successful and at least three broods of 8, 6, and 5 ducklings have been seen. Reports of over 16 ducklings with a single mum have been seen on the canal, but predation is very likely, so numbers will often drop dramatically overnight. We’ve also seen the extraordinary pairing of a Canada with a greylag goose at the Pit. They were clearly doing a mating display when I last saw them, but at the time of writing they have disappeared, to be replaced by a pair of Canada Geese. A baby moorhen was seen being fed by mum, but no sign of any baby coots yet.
Sandmartins and Swallows
Mallards on the Pit
Canada and Greylag Goose
During the last month Christleton Pit Group have been busy repairing the banks of the Pit on the Bricky Lane and Little Heath road side, with pre prepared coir rolls containing native British plants. This work is well under way as I write, and two new fishing platforms made from re cycled materials will be appearing on the Bricky Lane side in the near future. The Parish Council has written a very complimentary letter thanking the group for their continuing efforts to conserve the area for the benefit of the community, and many individual members of the village have also expressed their thanks. The Pit Group would be delighted to see any prospective new members at any of their sessions. The next three being on;
Last month Beryl and I planned a visit to both Slimbridge Wildlife and Wetland Trust Reserve and Wells Cathedral as part of a journey south to search for our family history. The visit to Slimbridge took place early on a really warm spring day, and whilst the waterfowl sightings of swans and ducks were wonderful, we also heard the most superb bird song, with cetti’s, sedge and reed warblers, lesser and common whitethroats in full song. A pair of superbly coloured kingfishers darted in and out of their nest site along a river bank, whilst suddenly from out of the blue in the sky above our heads, came three colourful cranes. Cranes were re introduced to the West Country several years ago, with staff at Slimbridge being heavily involved, and in the last two years, nesting attempts have been made. I think it is only a matter of time before successful breeding takes place, after an absence of over 400years. We had wonderful views of the cranes flying out towards the Severn estuary, seeing them feeding in the big lagoon, as well as seeing them circle majestically over the reserve grounds. There was also a pair in one of the centre’s pens, performing a dramatic courtship display, with some extraordinary bouncing flights and dances. I hope that this dramatic display will eventually lead to egg laying and breeding. It certainly deserved to.
We also had the opportunity to take a canoe safari and gently paddle through the grounds, to get a closer look at the warblers in the reed beds, and had even better views of the cranes as they floated and circled in the warm air currents overhead, before landing nearby in the centre grounds. I hope the pictures accompanying this article will give you a good impression of these magnificent long legged, long necked birds that are now very much part of the scene, at the WWT reserve at Slimbridge and on the Somerset Levels near Glastonbury.
Our visit to the Bishops Palace adjacent to Wells Cathedral co-incided with the birth of eight healthy cygnets to the current resident pair of mute swans. Swans are said to ring a bell in the wall at the Bishops Palace when they want food. It seems that this tradition goes back hundreds of years, and I remember first hearing the story back in the 1950s when I visited the Cathedral on a school trip. There are a number of videos on U tube illustrating this fascinating story, but I can’t image the swan family ever needing more food as there was an enormous supply of plants and weeds in the moat surrounding the Palace for them to forage on. You can see the efforts the adults were making to bring the food to the surface in the accompanying pictures. These cygnets will grow to adult size in just over four months, and then be chased off the site by their parents. The question I keep asking myself is. “ How is the knowledge of ringing the bell for food passed on to each new generation of swans”. It’s been going on for so long, tens of different pairs of swans must have been involved. Just how do they do it?
Swan and cygnets
Swans with cygnets